Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Road to Hell....

When I was still teaching, I came up with an idea for a course on evil and got so far as writing up a proposal and sample syllabus.  I'd include things like Lance Morrow's book on evil, selections from Dante's “Inferno,” and the memorable Robert Mitchum film “Night of the Hunter,” which has to be one of the most chilling movies of all time.  Robert Mitchum plays an itinerant Bible-thumper, who murders the mother (Shelley Winters) of two young children.  Because the children hold the key to a  secret treasure, or perhaps simply because he enjoys tormenting them, the preacher-man pursues the terrified, fleeing brother and sister in an extended chase sequence that rivals anything in “The French Connection” and does it without flash or speed.  In fact, it is the languorous pace that increases the sense of menace.  Every time the children believe they've reached a place of safety and begin to relax, they hear the preacher, riding his horse like an apocalyptic embodiment of death, whistling “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the old-timey hymn that on Mitchum's lips becomes an obscenity.  Eventually the children find sanctuary with an elderly widow (Lilian Gish), who stops the diabolical preacher with a blast from her shotgun.  When the police arrive to carry the miscreant murderer away, Mitchum spirals out of 
control, dancing and gibbering like a galvanized puppet, impotent, thwarted, and enraged.

What is evil?  This is perhaps the elemental human question and the hardest one to answer.  Can evil be understood?  Is it always apparent?  How relevant is intention?  I  have wrestled with these questions all my life and don't expect to find definitive answers, but I have concluded that there is a difference between being evil and being wrong.  One of the thorns in my side since David's birth has been my mother's role in his adoption and her abandonment of me during that crucial year.  She didn't physically abandon me.  She and Dad helped me find a place to live and were in continuous contact with me.  My dad had never been a demonstrative man, yet I never doubted his love for me.  When I was little, my mother was more overtly affectionate, patient, and available, and I adored her, so when she withdrew her affection I felt I was standing alone in a chill wind.  With my pregnancy I found myself on an ice floe, not because my mother was angry but because she was devastated.  It was her pain that undid me.  

My own definition of evil is causing pain to another human being.  Because it's impossible to live without ever hurting other people, we are all evil to a degree.  Being free from evil is not virtue; recognizing and acknowledging the evil we carry inside is.  Hawthorne knew this perhaps better than any American writer, and his “Young Goodman Brown” vividly demonstrates what happens when there is a failure of understanding.  For over forty years I fought against the idea that my mother was not the saintly soul I had always believed her to be but , beneath her persona of gentleness and gentility, an essentially selfish woman.  There was in my mind a huge cognitive disconnect  between the mother of my childhood and the mother who could not accept my son.  I was angry, but I didn't want to be.  What I felt was guilt—for hurting her mainly but also for knowing that at at a deep level I was very angry with her.    One of the doors that opened when I found David was the door to that anger, and it rushed out with a force that astonished me and increased my feelings of guilt even more.  

I felt guilty because I couldn't forgive her.  The wisdom of the ages tells us that in order to be whole, we must forgive.  We must be told to forgive by preachers and psychologists because forgiving is so difficult to do.  If it were easy, we wouldn't need telling.  But knowing what you should do and being able to do it are two very different things.  Forgiveness is not a tap that you can turn on at will.  Just as repentance requires sincerity, so too does forgiveness.  Keats wrote that if “poetry doesn't come as easily as the leaves to the trees, it had better not come at all.”  Forgiveness, too, has to arise organically from the heart.

Whether I will ever be able to forgive my mother—or myself—remains to be seen, but I believe I have found a way to find my way back to her, not in this life, as she is long dead, but in my own mind.  She was not evil.  She was wrong.  My beloved grandmother was not evil for believing the “peculiar institution” of slavery was not altogether a bad thing, but she was wrong.  I am not evil for eating meat, but I am wrong, and someday, I am convinced, people will look at old photographs of supermarket meat counters and shudder.  My parents, the social workers, the doctors and lawyers, the adoption agencies of the past were not evil, but they were very, very wrong.  Perhaps I am evil to continue eating meat, knowing as I do that killing sentient animals is cruel, but that is an argument for another day.    What I want to draw attention to here is the evil of adoption, which is nothing less than human trafficking tricked out in a pretty bow.  (Of course, there are exceptions, which is where arguments about adoption always seem to go.  What about abused children?  Older children?  Orphans?  Every case is different and must be considered individually, but generalizations can and should be made.)  

The literature is filled with studies of adoptees and the psychological effects of growing up like a cuckoo in a sparrow's nest, and if you are a social scientist these studies will speak to you.  What moves me are not statistical analyses or longitudinal studies but stories about individual human beings.  It has always been through stories that human culture and value have been preserved and transmitted, whether they be Old Norse sagas, parables from the Bible, or contemporary novels.  We need the stories of adoption if we are to be enlightened about the harm it does.  Now that I am approaching my seventies, I am able to look back at my own story and see with clearer eyes the effects adoption has had on my life and the lives of my children.

I came of age in the 'sixties, when the overriding issues of the day were Civil Rights and the Vietnam war.  Ever since those shopping trips to Youngstown, I had been appalled by the injustice in making African-Americans into second-class citizens.  When Martin Luther King, Jr., led the march on Selma, I was with him in spirit, and I engaged in more than a few spirited arguments with those who believed that gradualism was the answer to injustice, including my mother.  

The barbershops in Greencastle in those days were segregated; blacks had to go to Terre Haute to get their hair cut at black-owned barbershops, even though there was a black barber who cut hair in the Student Union at DePauw.  A group of citizens decided to petition the local barbershops to accept black customers, and one merchant even went so far as to mount his own personal boycott by letting his hair grow until everyone, not just white men, could avail themselves of a barber's services.  I was secretly pleased whenever I saw this man downtown or at church, dressed like the respectable businessman he was in a suit and tie, with his hair down to his shoulders.  One Sunday the petition was available for signing after the service, and my dad signed both his and my mother's names.  I seldom heard my parents argue, which may be one reason I remember this occasion so well, for when we got home my mother let my dad know in no uncertain terms that he should NOT have signed her name on that petition.  Maybe she simply felt it wasn't his place to sign for her, but I know that what really bothered her was appearing to support an anti-segregation initiative.  My mother was born in Indiana, but her mother came from a Virginia family that had once owned slaves, and her southern sympathies never dimmed.

Unlike the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that seemingly affect primarily the soldiers who fight them and their families, the Vietnam war was an intimate part of every American's life.  The draft swept many young men into the military, and drawing a low number in the draft lottery was a relief of giant proportions.  Students were exempt, but every male on campus knew that if he flunked out or quit, he'd likely find himself on a long flight to Saigon.  In those days there were only three television news channels, and each one presented a nightly review of the day's “body count.”  Graphic images of wounded and dying soldiers crouching beneath whirring helicopter blades haunted my dreams, and there were many times when I couldn't bear to watch the carnage and had to leave the room.  Like others of my generation, I will never forget the iconic photographs of the naked Vietnamese girl running from the napalm that was burning her or the officer firing point blank into the head of an enemy prisoner.

It was 1971.  Bob had lost his teaching job at the Philadelphia College of Art, and we had moved back to Greencastle from rural Pennsylvania, where we had finally married when Tanner was five months old.  The first time my parents came to visit us there, my mother asked first thing to see the marriage license, as if she couldn't trust me not to lie about something so significant.  Now we were back, living in my parents' garage, back to square one.  I got a part-time job in the Alumni Office at DePauw, and Bob rented a studio space  on the second floor above a downtown bar.  Before long I got a teaching job at one of the county high schools, and Bob stayed home with Tanner and painted.  I believe I was always meant to be a teacher, like so many members of my family, but I found riding herd on teenagers hard going.  I didn't have the stamina for it, and I hated having to be a disciplinarian.  I liked many of my students, my colleagues, and our wonderful principal, but I missed Tanner.  By the time I got home at the end of the day I was so tired I had little left for my family, and I resented having to work while Bob got to spend so much time with our son.

The idea of adoption entered my mind when we moved into an apartment next door to a DePauw professor and his wife who had two small children, a little girl Tanner's age and an adopted bi-racial baby boy.  Then we met a family that would become important to us in many ways.  The Basquins lived in Franklin, a town not unlike Greencastle but without a university.  Peter owned a successful business, and his wife, Kit, owned an art gallery where Bob showed his work.  They too had two children, a little girl about Tanner's age and a baby boy they had adopted from Korea.  The first time we went to dinner at their house and I saw little Peter Lee, I felt as if something had broken open inside me.  

There was a documentary shown on television around this time about adopting Vietnamese children.  It opened with a scene of a Black-Vietnamese toddler and a voice over saying, “This little girl is healthy, adorable, and in big trouble.”  The “dust of life” is what offspring of American soldiers were called by the Vietnamese.  These children, obvious because of their lighter or darker complexions, were generally rejected by the mother's family.  In a country where family ties mean everything, these children were castouts with no place to go, or so we were told.   Another memorable scene showed an earnest young American social worker, pleading with a Vietnamese mother to allow her youngest child to be adopted by an American family.  The baby would be removed from a dangerous war zone and would have opportunities impossible in Vietnam.  The mother cried and cried but in the end she relented and gave the young American her baby.  When I saw that, I understood that the mother was making her sacrifice so that her child could have a better life.  Hadn't I done the same thing myself?   Some family had given my baby a “better life.”  Now I could do the same for another mother's baby.  I had a debt to settle with the universe and needed to balance the scales.

We went through the Holt Adoption Agency in Oregon, founded when Henry Holt, distressed at the plight of  orphans after the Korean war, had begun bringing thousands of Korean children to the United States for adoption by American families.  The Basquins had gotten Peter Lee through Holt and wrote letters to the agency on our behalf.  Holt had expanded into Vietnam, and we decided to try for a mixed-race male infant, as they were supposedly the hardest to place.  I wanted a baby rather than an older child, and I didn't care what color it was.  If boys were harder to place than girls, then a boy was what I wanted.  I knew my limits and didn't want to take on a child with a disability or one that had been institutionalized for a long time. 

 I wanted a baby.  I admired the French for guaranteeing the offspring of their soldiers in Indochina a French education and felt America owed a debt to the children our soldiers left behind.  Their children were truly innocent casualties of this war.  I never marched in anti-war parades or stood at candlelight vigils , but I knew I could love a child.  I was a good mother to Tanner and I had love to spare.  Rather than add my voice to the thousands protesting the war, I would take one child and transform his life through love.  I knew I was filling the hole left by David, or trying to, but it would be many years before I'd realize what I had actually done.  I say “I” because, though Bob was all in favor of adopting, it was my idea and my passion.  It's obvious to me now that I had deeply personal reasons for adopting a baby, and I can't help wondering whether Bob had similar reasons.  I'd have to be a mind reader to know, so I won't speculate.  
I only ever saw my mother cry twice, once when I was able to get out of bed for the first time after becoming very ill with nephritis when I was ten and once when we told her we were adopting a black baby.  In those days, home studies didn't involve anyone except the prospective parents.  It took us 13 months, start to finish, to get Dabbs, and we didn't tell my parents—or Bob's—until shortly before we were told to go to O'Hare airport in Chicago to pick up our nine-month old son.  I didn't need my mother to spell out how she felt; I knew.  But to her credit she was always kind to Dabbs, and when we were forced to live in my parents' garage once again—this time with three children—she would get up with him before the rest of us were awake and read him stories.  Once Dabbs had arrived and my parents met him, my father told me privately that he was proud of what I'd done.  

One of the many reasons I feel guilty about my parents is because they were so generous to Bob and me when we needed help.  Twice Bob lost his teaching position, and twice we had to move into my parents' garage.  I now know how difficult this must have been for them.  They were comfortably retired and  I showed up yet again in a crisis.

We'd only had Dabbs for a month when Bob was offered a job in Guelph, Ontario, teaching art at the university.  I resigned from my teaching job, and we packed up and moved at the end of the summer.   The house we found to rent  belonged to the retired president of the university.  We got it for a good price because he wanted to rent to someone on the faculty and since Bob was an artist he figured we'd take good care of the contents of the house that were included in the rent: furniture, dishes, everything we could need.  This was fortunate for us, as we had nothing but our clothes and some children's books and toys.  Bob liked to make a clean getaway, and every time we moved, he'd insist we leave everything behind and start from scratch.  It was cheaper than hiring movers, our stuff wasn't worth much anyway.  I was sad to give away the handmade-by-Swedish-craftsmen rocker that had been given to us, but it went, along with a couple of antique pieces we'd picked up for a song.     


Deliverance  of a kind came when Bob was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, the equivalent for us of winning the lottery.  Suddenly we had a good year's income in a single check.  I quit my job, and we left for a summer in the south of France.  I was still reeling from the events of the past year, and this seemed like a new beginning.  We stayed in a pension right on the beach, Bob rented a studio where he could paint, and I spent my days lying in the sun, reading and working on my tan.  That was the summer of the moon landing, which we watched on French television.  Our languid days were punctuated by day trips to nearby museums in Vence, Nice, and Antibes, where Picasso had spent one summer in an ancient fortress.  He left behind all the work he did there, a nice little collection of what must by now be nearly priceless objects.  I had not known summer could be so beautiful.  The sea was as blue as I'd been told, there were brilliant flowers everywhere, and we took our meals on the terrace overlooking a small marina.  As darkness fell,  lights on the boats moored offshore were reflected in the water and seemingly in the stars above.  I was in a place I'd never been, surrounded by people I hadn't known existed just a few months before, and I was as dazzled as if I were dreaming.

One of our waitresses at the pension had a little boy about five years old.  He had free run of the place and was often down at the beach, playing with the little daughter of the man who taught sailing lessons.  Every morning a dozen small children set out in their miniature sailboats with brightly colored sails.  The boats were no larger than a bathtub, and watching them cheerfully bobbing in the gentle waves was as cheerful a thing as I have ever done.   One evening during dinner an alarm was raised for the little boy, who had gone missing.  The staff scurried about, trying to keep the uproar to a minimum, but it was a frightening time before the child was found.  I never knew the child's name, or if I did I've forgotten it, but I remember him.  He was a sturdy little boy with black hair, and I imagined that my son might  look something like him when he was five.
When I saw a pregnant woman who was staying at the pension for a week with a group of teachers from Sweden, I felt a kinship I couldn't express.  I wanted to be pregnant again.  


I've learned that after relinquishing a child for adoption many birth mothers never have another child.  Many do go on to raise families, however, and at 23, having recently given birth already, my maternal instincts were in full flood.  Bob and I never discussed the baby I'd given up—I'd learned my lesson about that—but we began talking about having a baby ourselves.  We bought air mattresses and floated out past the swimmers where we would drift and talk and plan our next move.  I wanted a baby, and Bob did too, so the idea took root and grew.  We went to a jewelery store in Antibes and bought a wedding ring, but I wouldn't wear it until we were actually married.  I carried that ring in a box in my purse for a long time.  In fact, I didn't wear it until my son Tanner was five months old.  

The summer in France, followed by several magical days in Holland before our return flight, had seemingly washed the grit out of my mind and heart.  It was as if I now inhabited not only a new world but a new self.   The daughter my parents had raised and known seemed almost a stranger, and I realize now that I was indeed constructing a new persona, a new self-definition.  I knew that I would never be like other young women, not like my old friends from high school and college who were getting married and starting families with respectable husbands and secure futures.  My parents' vision for my life would never take shape.  Everything I did from now on would be colored by my past, even if others were unaware of it.  It was as if I began breathing with only the top part of my lungs, keeping things light, suspended, never letting the world enter me too deeply.  I had to hold my emotional breath, because if I didn't I would surely drown.  

The drive in from the airport through the huge Queens cemetery seemed an omen.  Instead of the summer's warm breezes and soft sounds, we were surrounded by noise and grime and acres of the dead.  I felt like an abandoned car in a compactor, crushed and reduced to insignificance.  It was then I began to get the migraine headaches that would plague me until menopause.  We returned to New York, and my head exploded.  I worried about brain tumors and substituted fear about my health for grief for my lost son.  There was no way I could mourn my loss, no one I could talk to, and no hope of things ever being any different.  My baby was gone forever, but my love for him wasn't.  If I couldn't express my feelings, my feelings would find an outlet in debilitating headaches.  Perhaps a doctor would find no connection between my loss and my physical pain, but it makes sense to me, and what is life but an attempt to make sense of our experiences?  I couldn't grieve openly, but I could take to my bed with a migraine.  Pain became part of my world, along with fear, and a frightening loss of confidence.

I was deeply dependent on Bob and devoted myself to being the supportive helpmeet to his aspiring artist.  Admittedly, I did get a fair education in art history from him, even if it meant subordinating my artistic preferences to his artistic ideology.  When we separated years later, the first two things I did were to remove my wedding ring and order some Impressionist prints from the Metropolitan Museum.  

France had ruined us for the urban challenges of New York, so we fled the city and headed north.  I still had the red VW bug my dad had bought me in Ithaca, and we retrieved it from my brother and began searching for a place to land.  We needed nature and beauty, which the Catskill mountains have in abundance.  We drove from one small town to another, thrilling to mountain vistas and crystalline lakes,  until we arrived in Pine Hill, a hamlet nestled among steep forests and not far from an abandoned ski resort.  There were many deserted hotels in the area, which had a century earlier been the summer refuge for wealthy city dwellers.  The hotels retained a kind of shabby elegance that only increased their desolation, but the landscape was beautiful, no matter what the season.  Few people lived in this part of New York state, and it seemed to me that you had to choose between people and nature, city and country, for where people gather nature retreats.  I'd spent a year and a half living in New York, working, going out at weekends, getting to know Bob's artist friends and their wives and girlfriends.  In short, I'd moved into his life and left my own completely behind.  I badly needed to regroup, and the isolation of the Catskills seemed a continuation of the peace I'd begun to find in France.  Bob rented the basement of a defunct motel near the empty ski resort and set up a studio there.  One wall was mostly glass, and the view across the mountains was breathtaking.  That winter, when the snow was deep on the ground and the branches of trees bent with ice like in the Frost poem, we'd see deer delicately pick their way through the snow, their nostrils quivering in the cold.  We rented a tiny, two-room house from an elderly Jewish couple who became sort of surrogate grandparents to us.  They lived in the city but would come by occasionally to check on their property and take us out to dinner.  By Christmas I was expecting a baby.

Tanner was born in the summer, while my parents were in Germany attending the Olympics.  He was ten days old when they arrived back in the States and came immediately to see us and their new grandson.  They had bought a white Mercedes while in Germany, and my dad loved that car with a special passion.  He drove it for many years, and I always think of him whenever I see a white Mercedes of a certain vintage and remember that the car and Tanner arrived at the same time.  Bob and I were not married, as I had assured my parents we would be, but no one mentioned this awkward topic.  Now, all these many years later, I can only wonder what my parents must have been thinking.  Here was their daughter, having her second child out-of-wedlock.  Were they horrified, delighted with the baby, worried about what their friends at home would think, or were they resigned and numb?  What I do know is that I had constructed a fortress mentality that shut out any compassion I might have felt for them.  For decades I blamed my mother for not standing up for me and keeping a safe distance from my ordeal.  I needed help, and I got none from her.  I found it difficult to reconcile what I knew about her—that she was a kind, gentle lady who valued her good name and community standing—and the fact that when I proved such a disappointment, her love for me couldn't rise to the occasion.  I had always felt loved as a child, but it seemed that love had its limits.  When I was in my thirties, visiting my parents in Indiana, by then the mother of three, I remember her saying to me, “I never know what you’re thinking or what you're feeling.”  I realized that I had closed a door on her, and though I was cordial and attentive in a filial way, she knew it.  Who then was the betrayer, who the betrayed?  When I lost David, I lost a crucial link to my mother and we would never again be able to reach each other across that great divide.  

Tanner was an easy child with a precocious seriousness.  I agree with Wordsworth that “the child is father to the man,” and what a kid is at two or three is predictive of what he'll be at twenty or forty.  People don't change, in my experience, and my grandmother believed that a mother could know her child's personality even before he was born.  Tanner was slow to smile, as if he were considering the kind of world he'd entered into before committing himself.  Always a builder, he constructed “traps” out of whatever he could find around the house and at the age of three could do a better job cleaning his room than I did.  As an adult he would renovate houses and have a keen eye for design.  When his eight-year old nephew, my daughter's son, was learning a new vocabulary word, he was asked to give an example of “taciturn.”  His eyes lit up and he proclaimed, “Uncle Tanner!”  He nailed it.

These were the good years of my marriage to Bob.  Tanner delighted us both, and Bob was actively involved in his care.  The rages of our first year together tapered off, and I believed we'd come through the worst.  Ours was a marriage that would last, of that I was positive.

How could you?

“I did not realize the dreadful facts of life.  I did not know that a pattern forms before we are aware of it, and that what we think we make becomes a rigid prison making us.”  Margaret Drabble,  The Millstone

“Action is possible if you stop off feeling.”  --A.S. Byatt, “Sugar”


The adoption would be facilitated by the county Welfare Dept,  and Mrs. Pettingill, a grandmotherly  woman with white hair, would be my social worker, the one who would guide me through my ordeal.  I saw her regularly once a week and toward the end more often than that.  I considered her a friend, and when she assured me that I was not being a bad mother by relinquishing my baby, I struggled to believe her. She told me I could describe the kind of family I wanted for my child: not too much religion, though I realized that most people were religious to some degree.  I wasn't religious, but I knew finding an agnostic family might be difficult, so I allowed for what I called “normal” religion.  Not Catholic, but Jewish was OK.  I wanted educated parents, as I was certain my child would be bright.  Other children in the family were fine too.  As it happened, this description fit David's adoptive family pretty well, something I would learn more about years later.

My parents came out for Christmas  and took a day to drive to Ithaca from Hamilton to meet with Mrs. Pettingill.  The  four of us--my parents, Mrs. Pettingill, and I—met in Mrs. P.'s office.  She explained that a family had been found.  The parents were well educated and they already had an adopted daughter.  My mother asked to speak with Mrs. P. alone, and I was sent from the room.  I was always being sent from the room, usually when my parents wanted to talk to my brother and sister-in-law without me.  It was humiliating, and because I couldn't stop crying, I felt like a child and hated myself for my weakness.

Mother emerged from Mrs. P.'s office with a look of resignation, if not relief.  I didn't ask what they had talked about, and no one offered to tell me.  I was convinced that Mrs. P. was on my side, that her main concern was my emotional wellbeing.  “Come talk to me any time,” she had said, and I had stopped by her office without an advance appointment  more than once.  I wanted more than anything to do the right thing for my child, and I needed to be told over and over that if I loved my baby I would want him to have a good home with parents who could provide for him in ways I couldn't.   My doctor told me much the same thing, if with perhaps less sympathy.  My parents had said flat out that they wouldn't take the baby to raise.  They were too old, my mother said, and now that I am in my sixties myself I realize that she was undoubtedly right about that.  I felt so guilty for hurting her that it never crossed my mind to expect anything from her.  I felt I had to protect not only my child but also my parents.  I could see all too well their suffering, their shame, their helplessness.  I loved them and didn't want to cause them this pain.

Sitting at the little desk in my basement room, I wrote long letters to my mother and father, apologizing over and over for what I was putting them through.  “You are wonderful parents,” I wrote.  “I had such a happy childhood.  You don't deserve this.”  It must have been too much, because I never got a direct response to these outpourings.  Dad wrote to tell me to write some cheerful letters so they could show them to my aunt back in Greencastle.

Everyone was kind.  I believe that's why it took me so long to integrate the truth of what happened to me.  For years I truly believed that Mrs. P. was a saint.  She seemed to have endless patience, but at no point did she ever so much as suggest that relinquishing my child might not be my only option.  “But what if there's something wrong with the baby, and no one wants to adopt him,” I asked.  “When that happens, the doctor usually sees to it that the baby doesn't survive,” she responded, as if that would be comforting.   

It's difficult to describe how it feels to carry a baby you know you're going to give to strangers to raise.  For me, the only way to get through the worst ordeal of my life was to go numb.  It was as if I were walking through water or into a strong head wind.  I just concentrated on getting through the days, going through the motions, sealed off from everyone and everything.  

I'd been raised by a mother who believed women needed protection and the best way to get that protection was from a man, a good husband in other words.  Failing that, a woman should be able to support herself, but that was a definite Plan B.  When David's father failed to make an honest woman of me, all I could think of was finding another man to lean on.  I'm ashamed of that now.  I hate it that I was ever that weak, that dependent, but the truth is, I was.  When I was growing up, I was discouraged from having after-school jobs.  I was allowed to babysit, but I was forbidden to be a waitress or work in a drugstore, as many of my friends were doing.  I didn't really need money; my parents made a comfortable living, and I had nice clothes given to me pretty much on demand.  I  didn't have a real job until after I graduated from college. So when Bob appeared and fell in love with me, I felt relief as much as anything else.  

I met Bob at a party in Hamilton.  He had come up from New York for the weekend and was staying with the couple who were giving the party.  My brother had ascertained ahead of time that it was okay for him to bring me, his pregnant sister who was up from  Ithaca.  Bob later told me that when he saw me coming up the  walkway to the front door, he was filled with admiration.  I was touched by that, as the past few months had not left me feeling particularly admirable.  The living room was crammed with young faculty and their children ran around at knee level, pursuing their own fun.  It was a lively scene, and since I didn't know anyone I was glad when Bob talked to me.  He seemed very kind.    It wasn't long before we were a couple.

When I didn't go to my brother's on the weekends, I stayed with Bob at his studio in Hell's Kitchen, where he had moved after leaving his job at Colgate.  An artist, he was determined to make it in the big city.  He and my brother had been good friends, but I think Bob was a bit contemptuous of Jim for sticking it out in academia.  I latched onto Bob and believed I loved him, but I was numb.   This was when I began living with half my heart, when my emotional equilibrium was thrown completely out of balance, when I could no longer bear to be alone but was always lonely, even when in company.   I had become an exile in my own life, as surely as an Ellis Island immigrant.  There was a rupture, a fault line in my life that would forever separate me from all I had been and done.  But I was told by people I trusted that I was doing the right thing.  My baby would be “better off.”  I'd be able, as my mother carefully pointed out, to return to Greencastle as if nothing had happened.  My Aunt Agnes would never know my shame, my old teachers would not feel sorry for my parents, and the future?  Well, I don't think anyone was thinking very much about the future. 

For over forty years I carried a load of guilt that had it been lead would have crushed me.  I've thought a lot about shame and guilt and the difference between the two.  Shame is a feeling of being unworthy because of something you can't help, like having bad skin or being fat.  Guilt is  self-punishment for something you have actually done that you know to be wrong.  I was not ashamed of being pregnant and unmarried, nor was I ashamed of my relationship with David.  I felt guilty for hurting my parents, for the look on my father's face when he greeted me at the airport when I returned from England. “You're so beautiful,” he'd said, as he embraced me.  For my mother's tears when she thought I couldn't hear her.  Ours was a family of silences and secrets and always had been.  Even now, whenever I disclose something private to a friend, I can feel my mother's disapproval.  I'd been divorced from my Bob for over a year when I returned to Greencastle with two of my three children one Christmas.  My Aunt Agnes asked me where Bob was.  “Why, he's in Akron with his family,” I answered.  “You know, we're divorced.”  My mother had never mentioned my divorce to the sister she was closer to than anyone except my father.  If my divorce was unmentionable, how much more damning was my first pregnancy.  


I didn't want anyone with me in the hospital.  I submitted to being told to take a shower, despite having just bathed before checking in, then being shaved and given an enema.  Mrs. P. had given me a pamphlet purporting to explain the birth process, but the drawings were incomplete and the language vague.  I knew nothing of the stages of labor, breathing techniques that would help, or waters breaking.  I was given drugs to speed labor, while I gripped the hand of whichever nurse was closest when a contraction hit.  I was left alone for long periods, until at last I was wheeled down a hallway to the delivery room, where everything was bright and gleaming.  My legs were put in stirrups and strapped down, as were my wrists in leather cuffs.  I protested and assured the nurse that I would not interfere with the doctor, but I was told it was standard procedure.  I lay on the delivery table, feeling like a trussed pig without a shred of dignity.  This was it; my baby was coming, and I didn't want him to.  So long as I was pregnant, I had him with me.  I knew his birth would not be a beginning for us but the end, and I couldn't bear it.  

“Oh, God, I don't want to see this happen,” I cried.  I now suppose the doctor and nurses imagined that I didn't want my baby, but nothing could have been further from the truth.  I didn't want to lose him.  When I began to push, a nurse stood on either side of me and pressed on the top of my belly, helping the baby through the birth canal.  As I write this, I am remembering a detail that I have forgotten for over 46 years: the clock on the wall.  I remember black clock hands on a white face, and the time was 6:00.  In a few minutes the baby came out, and it was all over.  A nurse whisked him away—they told me it was a boy—and I heard him cry, but he wasn't given to me to hold.  

Over forty years later, after finding David, I ask myself over and over, How could I have done it?  How could I have let him go?  Many answers are possible.  I trusted my parents and didn't want to cause any more trouble.  I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally.  I was numb.  None of those answers is satisfying, and I still ask myself, How could I?  I also ask  myself, How could they have let me?  Was respectability more important than my feelings?
   Did they assume I would forget my baby?  He was their grandson.  They loved my brother's girls.  Surely they could feel something for my  son; he was their flesh and blood too.  

I felt guilt for hurting my parents, but with time that guilt faded.  I married Bob and had other children, and we never mentioned my lost baby.  I was able to return to Greencastle for visits, as my mother had wished, without the need to explain a fatherless child.  Everything returned to normal, or seemed to, and gradually I began to feel a different guilt.  I had signed away my son.  I had been treated gently, especially compared to many other girls of my generation who were threatened or shamed or disowned altogether.  My parents had been hurt, not angry,  my social worker kind.  The only person to blame for the loss of my son was myself.  I had done the unthinkable; I had given away my own child.
Recently, I saw the image online of an X-ray of what is called a “stone baby,” a fetus that was never born.  The picture was of a 40 year old fetus in the body of an 80 year-old woman.  It seems impossible, but apparently she carried that petrified baby without anyone's realizing it was there.  I wonder if she realized it herself.  My guilt felt like that stone baby, heavy yet invisible, a death in life.

I was finally allowed to hold David once a nurse ascertained that I was over twenty-one.  Had I been a teenager, I suppose I wouldn't have been allowed to see him at all.  (David is the name his adoptive parents gave him, coincidentally the name of his father.  I didn't name him, as I knew his adoptive parents would, but I thought at the time I might have called him Matthew.  A further coincidence was that the hospital gave him a provisional name: Christopher.  Although David's father went by his middle name “David," Christopher was his actual first name.  What are the odds of that?)  I couldn't wait for feeding time, when I would hold him against me, feel his warmth, and smell his head.  I examined his fingers and toes and stroked his black hair.  I gazed at his little face, his sweet mouth and his chin that quivered when he cried, and committed every detail to memory, knowing the memories I had of him during those few days in the hospital would be all I would ever have.  They would have to last me a lifetime.

Silence and Shut Down

 Bob picked me up at the hospital and took me to Hamilton, where I would spend a few weeks with my brother and sister-in-law.  I never knew whether he peeked in the nursery to see my baby or not, but he told me that day that he “couldn't do that,” nodding in the direction of the nursery.  Some birth mothers have no memory of the birth or the days immediately before and after.  One response to trauma is to "dissociate," to check out, go numb, freeze over, become emotionally paralyzed, and that's exactly what happened to me.  I was in the world but not of it.  I do remember the birth and the days in the hospital, and I now realize what incredible effort it took for me to take my feelings of panic, grief, and loss and set them aside.  It was like holding my breath and still managing to breathe at the same time.  I felt the numbness in my stomach, which is an oxymoron but true nevertheless.  My veins seemed full of ginger ale and my head full of cotton.  I was on auto-pilot, trying with all my strength not to crash.  

I pulled it off.  After three weeks, Bob returned to Hamilton and drove me down to Ithaca to sign the adoption papers.  Here my memory becomes hazy.  Some moments are as vivid as crystals, the rest are gone.  I remember a small room with a tiny crib.  In it was my son.  Mrs. P. told me I could pick him up, and I held him against my shoulder, his soft hair against my cheek.  I was dead inside, and the part of me that died that day will never come back.  I lost not only my son; I lost part of my soul.  I went down a swirling drain, and the years that followed circled that drain and held me in a repetitive pattern I couldn't break.  I was taken to another office, where the papers awaited my signature.  I sat down.  I signed.  I walked out of the building, and I remember nothing after that.

Bob lived in a single room in a rundown building that housed dance studios and other artist's work spaces.  It wasn't a residential building, though a few old impoverished dancers lived on the top floor.  It was no place for a baby.  Bob had no job, having left Colgate to pursue a career as a painter full time.  It had taken everything I had to leave my son.  I had stopped thinking rationally and moving in with Bob took no effort at all.  All the emotion I was choking down got transmuted into an unreflective connection to him.  The pipeline to my baby was closed off, and the love that should have gone to him went to Bob instead.  

I moved to New York on Valentine's day.  This is where my memory returns.  The city was bitterly cold and dark came early.  The noise, the lights, the looming buildings all pressed in on me, and I clung to Bob's arm whenever we went out.  He had furnished his studio with two cots and an armoir he'd picked up off the sidewalk.  The table was a huge wooden  spool that had once held telephone wire.  There was a single unit in the corner containing a small fridge, a two-ring hotplate, and a small sink.  We used the sink for bathing, and since the only bathroom was down the hall on the other side of the building, we even used it as a toilet, flushing it with boiling water.   

It wasn't long before my brother called me to implore me to call my parents.  I didn't.  Later, once Tanner was born and things returned to the "new normal," I picked up with my parents and went on with life, but those first several weeks after David's birth I simply couldn't do one single more thing that would require any sort of emotion.  My feelings about my parents were so bound up with my loss of my baby that it was impossible for me to talk with them, so I left them to their own anguish.  I'm sure they needed help, but it couldn't come from me.
The secrecy began almost immediately.  Bob explained that he wasn't about to marry anyone.  “I wouldn't marry the Queen of Sheba,” he said.  I never knew the name of his first wife, and anytime I mentioned his getting his divorce finalized, he'd get angry and refuse to discuss it.  He needed $400, he said, for the divorce to go through, and he didn't have the money.  Neither did I, and it was over three years before he filed the required papers to complete the business.  By that time my  son Tanner was born, just two and a half years after I had lost David.   I learned quickly never to mention the baby I had given up, because if I did I'd get a tongue lashing from Bob.  My parents didn't drink, and I had no idea what an alcoholic was like, so I didn't recognize the signs that Bob was out of control.  He'd get drunk and turn nasty, heaping contempt on me for “being a whore,” for hurting him.  When I'd gotten pregnant with David, I hadn't even met Bob.  How could what I had done have anything to do with him?  

When he wasn't drinking, Bob was kind and loving towards me, but when he drank too  much  he could turn vicious.  This usually happened at night, and he would keep me awake, berating and belittling me, impervious to my tears.  The first time this happened, I was so shocked I froze.  No one had ever spoken to me as he did, and I had no idea how to respond.  A more worldly young woman might have given as good as she got and put an end to the ugliness right there, but I simply couldn't believe that someone who professed to love me could behave in such a fashion.  I had already taken a vow of silence regarding my son; it seemed natural at this point to do the same with Bob's rages.  Sylvia Plath wrote that dying was an art she did exceptionally well.  I had the same attitude about suffering.  If life rained blows upon me, I would absorb them and go on.  I had already shown how much I could endure.  I would wait for Bob to wake up to what he was doing.  Perhaps at some unconscious level I felt I deserved the punishment.  After all,  I had shamed my parents, and, according to my family, ruined my life.  I couldn't go back to Indiana, my brother's wife was now expecting another baby herself, and I had no money to fall back on.  At least with Bob I didn't have to face my predicament alone. 

 Living in New York was exciting.  In the late 'sixties abstract expressionism was at its height, and the art scene was an exhilarating thing to be part of.  We attended gallery openings and met some of the greatest artists of the day--Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell.  It was all a bit overwhelming for a girl from the midwest, but I felt as if I had moved to the center of the world.  Yes, it was exhausting, and the city was a dangerous place.  That was the year of the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, there was a fear of riots, and crime was rampant, but I felt I was living where history was being made.   Bob got some teaching at Hunter College, painted and sold a few paintings.  I got a job as an editorial assistant at Good Housekeeping magazine that gave us a small, steady income.  We still could barely make rent, but we managed by living in our single room in a bad neighborhood.  

Among our friends were an older Indian painter and his American girlfriend.  He had a wife and children back in India, and he and his lady weren't married either.  In fact, most of our friends were living together without the shelter of a marriage license, so Bob and I were in no way unusual.  One evening after a gallery opening, we went out to dinner with this couple and a group of artists, art dealers, and their various wives and girlfriends.  I was seated next to our Indian friend, who had known me during the last months of my pregnancy.  This was soon after David's birth, and he was being solicitous when he asked me how I was doing.  “You're going to stay in touch with him, right?” he asked.  Bob was seated on my other side and heard what our friend said.  I could feel him stiffen and my face burned.  I said, No, I wouldn't be seeing the baby again.  If I could have sunk into the floor at that moment, I would have been grateful.  I knew the evening would not end well, and I was right.  Bob got drunk and as soon as we got back to his studio he lit into me.    

“How could you do it?  How could you?  You bitch.  You're nothing but a whore, and you're killing me.”  The insults seemed to go on for hours.  Even after I went to bed and pretended to be asleep, he kept muttering accusations.       
I had many years of similar nights to get through before I would be free.